Eight million annual patient visits, 3,700 health clinics, 30 hospitals and 3.3 physicians per thousand habitants. Those are just a few of the impressive figures surrounding Dubai’s healthcare industry, according to a report by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA). In 2016 alone, the Gulf city hosted over 300,000 medical tourists, and aims to host 500,000 by 2020.
The UAE has a relatively young population, so the demand for healthcare is expected to grow over time.
But will they come to Dubai for treatment?
The UAE has a relatively young population, so the demand for healthcare is expected to grow over time. A report by the Federal National Council revealed that the number of patients from the UAE who are travelling abroad for treatment has risen by up to 10 percent per year. Another report by the DHA showed the total expenditure of overseas treatment by Emirati patients in 2016 was $170 million (AED623m).
The reason? Some suggest it is the availability of cheaper treatments abroad that appeals to UAE patients, but cost and familiarity to their home countries may not be the only factors. According to the chief marketing officer of GE Healthcare, access to the right care with the right specialization is a key factor.
And while the UAE has made great strides in establishing a healthcare ecosystem that allows better access to specialized care, according to Mohie, it is also important to broaden that scale.“It’s not just about having doctors and nurses. It is about having capable doctors and nurses in place. It’s about investing in their education long-term and elevating their skills to help them optimise technology solutions and provide better care,” he says. This is particularly important as the demand for healthcare is expected to grow due to an increase in the number of elderly to 11 per cent in 2032 and 29 per cent in 2050, according to DHA.
It’s not just about having doctors and nurses. It is about having capable doctors and nurses in place
“The economics when it comes to investment [shows] there is a need for more doctors, more nurses, but more skilled people [need] to come in as well, and definitely more specialisation versus generalisation. As the population grows, we are going to need bigger and more specialised hospitals,” he adds.
Dr Ramadan AlBlooshi, Chief Regulatory Officer, Dubai Healthcare City Authority – Regulatory, says that the UAE is ahead of other countries when it comes to specialised medicine.
“The government did establish a capacity plan, which is very crucial not only for investors but also for the residents of the UAE. It is not just about having general doctors, but having speciality doctors. Once you have a study that says exactly what is needed for the next 20 years, this will help investors understand what the people in the UAE need,” he says.
“This will also help meet the patient’s expectation of having direct access to a specialist instead of having to go through a general practitioner, who will then give you an appointment to see a specialist. Access to see a specialist in our country is faster than some other countries, which makes it easier to get the right doctor at the right place”, he adds.
Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) is encouraging investors to focus on personalised and niche service for UAE residents. One of the most sought-after treatments abroad is oncology, with 24.2 percent of patients going overseas for cancer treatment due to limited oncology services in the UAE. So, the DHCC has set up a specialised oncology facility with Mediclinic Middle East to increase capacity in cancer care.
“When we see there is a need, we try to encourage investors to establish more facilities in that field. For example, we established the first and biggest oncology wing with the Mediclinic Middle East group,” Al Balooshi says. But it did not come without challenges, he adds, such as insurance acceptability for cancer cases, attracting specialised doctors from abroad to work in the UAE and convincing patients to get treatment in theemirates, as opposed to travelling elsewhere. Telemedicine will shorten [waiting] time, improve efficiency, and also increase customer happiness.
Telemedicine will shorten [waiting] time, improve efficiency, and also increase customer happiness
To tackle this, DHCC recently introduced a stem cell storage laboratory that allows for the safekeeping of master cells. Stem-cell therapy uses stem cells to treat and prevent diseases and conditions, with bone marrow transplant being the most widely used form of the treatment. Bone marrow transplants are most commonly used to treat blood or bone marrow cancer, leukemia.
“Stem cells are the future of health care,” states Al Balooshi. “It is not only for a specific disease or condition. We do have a centre which provides storage, treatment and curing. We are serving people not just in the emirate, but also those outside of Dubai. There is a new regulation talking about stem cells covering various aspects including treatment, transfer and collection. There are also talks about the companies that are authorised to collect stem cell and market such service. This is an initiative from the whole government and not just from DHCC,” he says.
Another game changer is telehealth, which is the use of digital mobile devices to access and manage health care services remotely. DHCC’s telehealthapp was rolled out at Dr Sulaiman Al Habib Medical Centre and Mediclinic City Hospital, facilitating live medical consultations and remote patient monitoring, as well as connecting patients through tools such as video conferencing. The platform provides patients with the flexibility and convenience of accessing licensed health services from the comfort of their homes.
“It is not a new technology. It has been used for a long time. But now the culture has been changed and people are accepting it to be practiced among us. Telemedicine basically enables doctors to speak to other doctors in the same network, if they are from the same group of hospitals. It also enables them to speak to their own patients,” Al Balooshi says.
“You don’t need to be seen by the doctor and physically examined for all diseases. If it’s a chronic case, psychological case or diabetes, for example, they don’t need to see a doctor. Telemedicine will shorten [waiting] time, improve efficiency and increase customer happiness,” he adds.
AI could potentially provide preferential diagnosis and it will relieve doctors of the mundane administrative tasks they are doing
GE Healthcare’s El Rafey also believes that telehealth affords more time for local talent to receive training in specialised medicine. “One great thing telehealth does is, in the short-term, as you train doctors [in specialised medicine], it can bridge [the gap] very nicely by reaching out to expertise… whenever you need it... So I think that component in the short-term is very valuable,” he says.
But will the rise of telehealth replace the need for physical and real time doctor-patient communication? Will the rise of other technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI); more specifically, robot doctors, make medical professionals obsolete?
“This myth of robots replacing doctors is not going to happen—my personal view”, states El Rafey. “What I think is going to happen is that the doctors who don’t use AI will be replaced by the doctors who do use it.”
The CMO says AI will add the most value when it is embedded into devices to help deliver faster diagnosis.
“For example, if we take an X-ray of a patient at the point of care and that X-ray is diagnosed through AI to show a collapsed lung, then [the patient] can be prioritised to the top of the list and sent straight to the critical care team for an early intervention,” he says.
“AI allows for faster diagnosis—in the future it could allow for preferential diagnosis, to support critical decision-making, and at the same time, what it will also do will relieve a lot of the mundane administrative tasks that caregivers today are doing, free them up of that, automate it, and really allow them to do what their job should really be, which is caring for the patient.”
“We all sit here as the uninformed healthy. We only sit here because we don’t show symptoms. In the coming future, once our data becomes live and can come to us through wearables, connected to a virtual coach, we move from being the uninformed healthy to being the informed healthy. What that does is it unlocks our ability to take care of ourselves,” he explains.
Will healthcare technology backed by AI eventually replace any need for human - or robot - doctors?
It is unlikely, according to the experts, but it will probably convince more patients to stay in the UAE for treatments. And maybe save the cost of a plane ticket or two.For all the latest health tips & news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.